The Bourne Legacy - A Vicarious Postmortem

The other day I almost-reviewed — mostly spoiled and snarked at — the fourth movie in the "Bourne Whatever" franchise, and hinted there was more to come…
Well, here it is.

Today's post is about learning lessons from that wreck, and about the abilities and constraints applicable to spinoffs and expansions in a series.

Also it's a pic-less wall'o'text, because looking for iconography is too much of a timesink, and I'd rather get back to the next episode of The Fair Game series. Deal with it.


To start off the right foot, let me state for the record, The Bourne Legacy, as it is, is not a bad movie entirely, and falls from only as high, to fail only as hard as it set itself in the first place. What goes wrong mainly happens on the expectations management and internal consistency fronts, two topics dear to my heart.

As may not be obvious from my previous spoilerific review, the first 90-or-so minutes of the movie stand on a firm leg, and really do a quite honorable job of upholding the franchise style and character, that is until the flick suddenly takes the kind of unexpected turn in both style and substance that manages to ruin both everything that has come before and make the — otherwise pretty good — pulp-action in the last  half-hour fall on the painful side of campy.

That sort of slip-up is especially inexcusable and damaging when applied to a franchise that's entirely about taking a fresh and clever view on otherwise tired genre clichés, and we'll get back to the question of why and how, but for now let's just say the end of the end of the movie was just about as welcome as a strawberry icecream floater lobbed into a garlic clam chowder bowl.

Let's have at it, in from-the-hip postmortem style.

What went right: 

In the absence of the titular character, the writers made the right choice by setting up The Bourne Legacy as a side-story rather than a sequel : this allows for tighter integration of the new story into the mainline storyline and instantly establishes the legitimacy of the expansion as part of the larger verse.
Similarly, most of the defining elements and themes of the early Jason Bourne movies are reused, but not so hamfistedly that it looks like a reboot by any other name. 

A particularly nice (if under-exploited) touch comes with the theme of the anti-captain america supersoldier, who owes not so much his physical abilities but his intellectual competency to being a military guinea pig, and fears a demotion to his previous state or metal retardation. It's a rather clever play on the classic allow me to show you my true worth by granting me superpowers, because the protagonist himself believes he isn't worth crap without his spook-special makeover.

Aaron Cross is slightly less of a wandering hero than Jason Bourne, but even though most of the plot is resolved over only three locales, mostly urban, we still get some sense of moving around quite a bit and all the right checkboxes get crossed in terms of scenes that should be in a Jason Bourne movie : the roof chase, the weird/tense meet with a peer agent that ends up in dead peer, the house assault, the epic car chase in economy-class cars/bikes, a bit of improvised weaponry… the works. 

The main cast is generally a success : Jeremy Renner works as a footsoldier upgraded way above his comfort zone, in a bit of clever metaplay on the actor's public perception as a second-tier star, and (nearly) gets a chance to grow up throughout the movie into a lead in his own right. Edward Norton is also a nice pick for the half burned out post-facto rationalizing baddie, and Rachel Weisz sells a surprisingly well-written fish-out-of-fishbowl scientist girl. 
In the extras/red-shirt department, there are a couple nice touches too, with Zeljko Ivanek and Elizabeth Marvel, both of TV fame as morally ambiguous typecasts, who make the best from the small parts they're given. Some of the cast from previous installments reprise their roles without fault, which helps bring the whole thing together with the main universe and storyline.

The principal photography is not bad either, and generally fits alright with the atmosphere and codes established in the previous movies, if a bit different, but that's not a bad thing in itself.

What went wrong:

As subtly hinted in my previous review-cum-spoiler, the entire last quarter of the movie goes horribly wrong, not because it's poorly done (although at times it is), but because it runs off the rails from the entire franchise by moving into over-the-top pulp bombasticness for no apparent reason but lazyness. 
I have other gripes with the movie, but they also boil down to lazyness : Stacy Keach is appropriately hamming it as a generic cynical military-turned-conspiracy underboss — but sadly, it's entirely out of place in this specific setting. That kind of characterization is just phoning it in, writing wise, and so are most of the other minor blunders in the movie, so let's focus on the core issues of lack of direction, consistency and proper storytelling.

Where the entire Bourne franchise hinges on stretching believability while keeping it hollywood-gritty and reasonably verisimilar, the Bourne Legacy drifts into a pure pulp from the moment the main arc for the hero is resolved with a fetch quest of a magic cure for his illness/Achilles' heel. At this point, there is no story left in this beast, and the whole thing is runing on fumes, so we're treated to a very intense and spectacular chase against a terminator-like baddie that goes on for the last 20 minutes of action in the movie, yet fails miserably because a) it lacks purpose, and b) it's stylistically off.

The point is… ?

From a simple storytelling perspective, the lack of purpose is obviously at odds with the supposedly climactic nature of the big finale chase and confrontation with the baddie, but let's see exactly how and why, because that's a common issue with some action flicks that endeavour to carry more of a story than a dungeon crawler.

The Bourne series is not about a protagonist kicking the arse of incrementally tougher henchmen until he gets to kill the bigbad. It's about a guy travelling around a world of trouble, in a quest for answers, and hopefully peace of mind — and breaking a few skulls if and when it's the most convenient solution to get baddies out of his way. The face-off with the dragon happens because the dragon is sent after him, not because the protagonist works his way up to to the confrontation as a milestone.

Arguably that's the case in Legacy, too, as the determinator sent after Bourne Cross is not somebody Cross looks forward to meet and fight. The problem here is there's nothing at stake : the dragon is an obvious case of last-minute release monster X and his obstruction accomplishes nothing but to slow down the hero's eventual escape from his pursuers, which we know must by law of the genre succeed - the only question here would be whether the girl is to get killed en route, but by that point we already trust she won't, for she's been sticking with him past the point of usefulness, and she's pretty much all he has to show in the way of spoils of war.

The big car chase is supposed to be a serious mountain to climb during the journey, ideally culminating in some flag capture or equivalent milestone in the storyline : in the original movie, it's the clincher to bond Jason and Marie into a team, in the second, it's the pilgrimage en route to Bourne's confession and contrition to the daughter of one of his victims, in the third, it's the opportunity for Bourne to spare the life of a fellow operative at the end of a serious confrontation, who will repay him later by not shooting him when he could. In any case, there is more to come, and the chase happens as Bourne is intent on getting somewhere, not merely escaping, the latter we know he could manage at any time, because duh, he's Jason Bourne.

Yes, this make your ass look huge.

That's not even the worst part about the final chase : style is the main offender here. Simply put, it doesn't even try to be believable and it's a mess to boot.

When your car/bike chase is so much of a collage of nonsensical show-off tricks that it would be hard to turn into a playable mission in GTA, that should be a solid hint something is wrong with it. Much worse is the fact it just doesn't fit the overall style of the series and manages to make a mockery of everything that came before (and wasn't an embarrassment) by throwing away the Bourne franchise earnest efforts of keeping things mostly realistic (for a blockbuster value thereof) and switching to an action-comedy gear we didn't know was supposed to be there.

There's nothing wrong with action comedy, or Hollwood-amped pulp/B-movie action : I've enjoyed some of Jason Statham and Vin Diesel action flicks without remorse or shame, and I can even go through any of Tom Cruise's ridiculous MI without gouging my eyes out with a spoon. but the moment you throw a trenchcoat on a ninja-zombie and pretend it fits into a John LeCarré spy novel, you'll see me cringe.

But let's backtrack to the true moment of derailment, and what it indicates about the true wtf is it you think you're doing ? aspects of The Bourne Legacy.

The Bourne series is a fairly classic lone-spy setting, and revolves around a guy using his talents against his masters to both survive and unveil conspiracies after his being marked for termination. Without going into the minutiae of the franchise, that's the bare essentials.
Where it differs from a pure action flick is in the rather involved story, with multiple reveals, twists and concurrent interests of major players/groups, and a protagonist that is expected to outsmart them all as he's peeling the onion of lies and coverups, all the while struggling with his not-entirely reliable mind. No such thing here, even though everything was properly set from the beginning.

There is only one conspiracy at play in Legacy, as you can safely ignore most of the mainline Bourne stuff happening in the background : bad guys are worried about being exposed and initiate a wholesale cleanup of all the people involved in the project the hero is a part of, flagging him and scientist girl for termination. The mission therefore, is to go in hiding forever after grabbing a MacGuffin to take care of the hero's addiction to pills.
Thus we're looking at a fairly straight line, with a single waypoint enroute, laid on a flat surface, as opposed to the aforementioned conspirationist onion of the previous Bourne movies. The endgoal is equal to the initial starting condition, with a slight detour. That may be OK for a straight-up action movie, but a Bourne it does not make, legacy or otherwise.

What could have been done differently ?

We start with an interesting protagonist, who's more the grunt-next-door and less the elite-spook type than Jason Bourne, and who comes with a strong personal motivation : more than his life, which his type is expected to be prepared to risk at every turn, he's running against the clock to save his mind, which he knows only exists thanks to the chemical enhancements provided by his former masters turned enemies. Much like the original Bourne was driven by his compulsion to learn about himself, Cross is forced to get in the thick of things in order to not lose himself, and everything is primed for us to get a taste for the looming curse that's chasing him forward… except it will never happen.
We get a glimpse of what could possibly be Cross blanking as the meds start running out, shortly before he reaches the MacGuffin in Manila, but he gets injected with the magic cure for stupidness momentarily, and we never see him in his diminished state (he shakes a cold-like fever overnight, during which he has bad dreams, wow).

That's too bad, considering we also have Dr Marta Shearing on call, who it is established is very competent in her field, and has proven to be quite smart and resilient generally. 
We'd have ample room here to work in a couple scenes right around or after grabbing the virus sample, where she'd get to carry the ball (and our hero) forward, while his abilities diminish to a rather terrifying point. We know of his potential value to her in his fully-able state, and that would be reason enough for her to put in the effort and risk to try and restore him, while it would go a long way toward explaining why he doesn't dump her the moment he is permanently fixed and she becomes dead weight (OK, we got hints of his good heart and possible crush on her earlier, but still). 

All of that could have been sorted just fine by the magic cure not being such a turnkey solution, and requiring a bit of time, work and tools.
That would have entailed a bit of respite for our heroes, which could have been brought about by their fortuitous "death" occuring after…  a car chase ! 
There are ten different ways to make this work, thanks to the semi-random nature of the chase context : slow down or minimize the chasing party at will, for a minute or more, get the girl behind the wheel because the hero ate a bit of a scenery or just went retrograde, etc.
This also would have given meaning and purpose to the mandatory car chase, and who nows, offered a bit of an opportunity to actually care about the determinator, too, provided he did not die right away — maybe he can't believe they're dead because of his built-in "amped mission fidelity", and thus keeps looking for them after they're declared dead, who knows…


This pace change alone would have solved two out of three problems, provided the chase was not so ludicrously designed (but that's a self-contained issue), and would have added a bit of depth to the whole thing, leaving only the conspiracy side of things a bit light for the price.
…which is convenient, because we might want something to wrap things up, even though reaching the point where the hero recovers his full cognitive abilities could be enough to provide a satisfying conclusion. Of course, that would leave the girl in charge of all the meaningful parts until the titles roll, which in itself could seriously screw with the alpha-male mythos here (although I personally would deem it a nice twist, and argue her doing the dragon in at the end of the bike chase was indeed a step in that direction).

Being an expansion and side-story to the Bourne mainline, there are limitations to what can be allowed, conspiracy-wise : Legacy couldn't afford to break the canonical storyline, nor kill any of the recurring bigbads, and generally had to avoid affecting or triggering verse-shattering events, for fear of closing plot branches and making things harder for the future of the franchise. Still, I'm confident Ed Norton's character is not above using child soldiers in african wars as a test group for new supersoldier juice or something equally disturbing, now that the whole Bournery thing is canonically commoditized in pill form.
How you get Aaron Cross in the loop, or to care about it, is another question, and one that would have been fitting of another installment in the Legacy subseries.



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